The largest nonprofit focused on the health of our oceans is finding seafood fraud everywhere it looks – in Los Angeles, 55% of seafood is mislabeled, and in Boston it’s 48% and in South Florida it’s 31%.
In a report released last year, Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health, Oceana found that while 84% of the seafood eaten in the US is imported, only 2% is inspected and less than 0.001% specifically for fraud.
In fact, recent studies find that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25-70% of the time for fish like red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, disguising species that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.
Oceana confirmed through DNA testing that seafood mislabeling is unacceptably high in samples collected at grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues, among other retail outlets.
"Our results suggest that nationwide, people may be receiving a completely different fish than what they’re paying for," says Dr. Kimberly Warner, senior scientist at Oceana. "Not only does seafood fraud cheat consumers and hurt honest seafood businesses, it also puts our health at risk and undermines efforts to eat sustainably."
Despite ongoing efforts by local and state authorities to combat seafood fraud over the past 30 years, mislabeling rates have remained between 15-31%.
In South Florida, Oceana targeted species with regional significance and those that were found to be mislabeled from previous studies, including red and yellowtail snapper, grouper, wild salmon, yellowtail and white tuna.
Among the Florida report’s findings:
- Fraud is detected in half of the 14 different types of fish collected.
- Sushi venues have the highest proportion of mislabeled samples (58%).
- All white tuna samples from sushi venues are actually escolar, a species that can make people sick.
- Red snapper is mislabeled 86% of the time (six out of seven samples).
- Grouper mislabeling has dropped from a high of 40-50% during the height of the fake grouper scam in the mid-2000s to 16% (about one in six samples) in this study.
- The most egregious fish swap is king mackerel, a high mercury fish that carries a "Do Not Eat" health warning for sensitive groups, being sold as "grouper."
"The results are disturbing," says Beth Lowell, campaign director at Oceana. "The continued mislabeling of seafood in Florida shows that inspections alone are not enough. Seafood needs to be traced from boat to plate to ensure that it is safe, legal and honestly labeled."
Despite growing concern about where our food comes from, consumers are frequently served the wrong fish – a completely different species than the one they paid for. With about 1,700 different species of seafood from all over the world now available in the US, it is unrealistic to expect consumers to be able to independently and accurately determine what fish is really being served.
Our seafood is following an increasingly complex path from fishing vessel to processor to distributor and ultimately our plates. Seafood safety is handled by a patchwork of laws with no federal agency definitively in charge of addressing seafood fraud. Little coordination or information sharing exists within the U.S. government, and many of these laws are not being fully implemented.
Oceana is calling on the federal government to ensure that the seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legal and honestly labeled, including requiring a traceability system where information such as when, where and how a fish is caught follows it throughout the supply chain-from boat to plate – allowing people to make more informed decisions about the food they eat while keeping illegal fish out of the U.S. market.
A number of large retailers have committed to selling only Marine Steward Council (MSC) certified seafood, which guarantees tracking of seafood through the value chain, in addition to be caught sustainably from abundant sources: Kroger and Target by 2015; Safeway; Sysco, the largest foodservice distributor in the US, by 2015; McDonald’s in Europe.
Greenpeace ranks the nation’s supermarkets each year on seafood sustainability: